March 2, 2016
By Matt Winkeljohn | The Good Word
Georgia Tech beat Georgia State 11-6 Tuesday at Russ Chandler Stadium, and with eight games – and wins – in the books the Yellow Jackets are trending the right direction as several themes are emerging.
Chiefly, shortstop Connor Justus and second baseman Wade Bailey are locked, loaded and rocking at the top of the lineup; Tech’s vaunted freshmen are producing; and although the Panthers (5-3) did damage with two wind-aided home runs, the Jackets’ pitching looks to be as deep as projected.
Starting at the top, it’s no surprise that the Jackets entered the game leading the nation with 13 double plays turned.
When Bailey snared a line drive in the eighth inning and flipped to Justus to double off a runner at second base, it was more of the same – the eighth time they’ve paired for a twin killing this season.
Justus was in the middle of everything defensively as a freshman in 2014, when Tech set school records for fielding percentage (.974) and double plays (77), and when Bailey came on last season as a freshman to start 53 of 55 games, the Jackets finished second in the ACC with 56 double plays.
This is their third season together, as they were teammates up the middle in the summer of 2013 for the East Cobb Yankees.
“We’re just very familiar with each,” Bailey said. “We know each other, and what we like.”
What’s surprising is the way they’re producing at the plate.
With two hits each Tuesday, Justus is leading the Jackets in batting average (.469) while hitting second in the lineup, and Bailey is third (.424) behind first baseman-pitcher Brandon Gold (.462) while leading off.
Justus hit .249 and .254 in his first two seasons, and Bailey last season batted .255. Both of them worked primarily at the bottom of the lineup.
“They’re contributing on both ends, and that’s great,” said head coach Danny Hall. “I think Wade’s just a year older, a year wiser. CJ has worked really had to make some changes with his offensive approach, and it’s paying off for him.”
Bailey’s adjustments have been more subtle, and with a .528 on-base percentage, he leads the Jackets with 11 runs scored.
“I like a little rock in there . . . I start about half way and then I get a little rock back instead of staying on my back foot so I’ve got a little momentum to go to the ball,” he said. “This offseason I knew that it’s what I needed to do to get my swing to work and see the ball well.”
Justus, who is second with eight runs scored, said he has, “Just really worked on the mental side, trying to stay with my approach, stay consistent. I’m trying to look right-center knowing the player that I am. Last year, I was very inconsistent with that. I’m trying to stay within myself.”
Bailey and Justus have plenty of new teammates, and they’re contributing.
The Jackets have five freshmen who were drafted last June by Major League clubs only to opt to play at Tech instead of turning professional.
Stallings hit his second home run. With just three starts and 12 at-bats, he’s second on the team with eight RBI (Matt Gonzalez has 10) after he drove in four Tuesday. He’s hitting .417 after picking up a pair of knocks against the Panthers.
“Stallings can hit a home run in a heartbeat; he’s got a lot of power,” Hall said. “Joey Bart is a good competitor at the plate. He has the knack for getting the barrel on the ball and he’s a good RBI guy [after driving in two with a single].”
Righthander Jake Lee was the only freshman to pitch Tuesday, when he allowed one unearned run while throwing the seventh and eighth innings.
He’s got company in a couple categories.
Senior Cole Pitts started Tuesday and allowed three earned runs in four innings – all when Georgia State catcher Joey Roach skied a ball in the first inning. That looked like a long out off the bat, but with the flags ripping hard to left field – winds were 18 mph out of the south-southwest at first pitch – it left the park.
Junior Ben Parr was touched for a two-run home run in the sixth as GSU pulled within 10-5. Those were the first two earned runs he’s allowed in seven innings.
Tech entered the game leading the nation with a combined 0.90 ERA. That rose to 1.37 Tuesday, but eight of the 13 Jackets who’ve pitched have yet to give up an earned run.
Gold, Hughes, Matthew Gorst, Jonathan King, Carpenter, Lee, Gauvreau and Winborne have not yet allowed an earned run and they’ve each pitched multiple times while combining for 23 appearances and 51 innings.
Times are good as the Jackets have won 18 straight not-conference games in Russ Chandler Stadium, where Western Carolina will visit Friday-Sunday. Hall’s not worried about players becoming complacent nor taking anything for granted.
“No, I think we’re playing enough guys position player-wise and I think we’re pitching a lot of guys so they’re ready to go,” the coach said. “Our guys are smart enough to know they’ve got keep that foot on the gas pedal or there will be somebody else that has a chance to go in there to play and take that spot. Competition is a good thing.”